Who Knew Eating Chicken Heads Would Be So Satisfying?
A list of some of Austin's offal offerings
Few topics in the culinary world evoke a more dramatic reaction than "variety meats." The innards, the odd bits – basically anything other than the boneless breasts and steaks and chops that are most familiar to our palates and our plates – make most people cringe. Either you're an enthusiastic braggart about the latest bizarre food you've experienced, or you purse your lips tightly, as if to keep even the idea from entering your mouth. Opinions aside, entrails and extremities are appearing more regularly on local menus, and with a slight shift in perspective, Austinites might welcome a little variety in our diets.
Resourceful chefs are embracing the concepts of thrift and zero waste that were previously mandated by natural disasters or wartime rations, and the challenge to make unconventional cuts desirable is an opportunity for creativity. On the other side of the counter, diners are becoming more open-minded, or perhaps they relish the shock value of their social media post. Jesse Griffiths, executive chef/owner of Dai Due Butcher Shop & Supper Club, hunting instructor, and expert on nose-to-tail cooking, believes the general public is beginning to understand true sustainability. And at least some of his customers are opting for the obscure menu items for reasons beyond the gimmick. "Sure, Instagram will come into play," he admits. "I'd like to see a real shift toward it, rather than just a 'I'm more punk rock than you' shift."
A lot of the offal found in Texas are ethnic specialties or regional traditions, such as Mexican chorizo (highly seasoned beef or pork – practically every unused-but-still-edible part) or pickled pigs' feet of Deep Southern cuisine. So for some of us, eating organ meats isn't such a wild concept. But for many others, there's still intimidation – and misinformation. "Offal is really very nutritious," says Griffiths. "Kids should be eating liver as much as they can – it's good for their brains." Perhaps if we adopted more ambiguous names, diners wouldn't second-guess their food's edibility. (Sweetbread sounds innocent enough, and Rocky Mountain oysters can't be that exotic, right?)
Still, no matter how enlightened, adventurous, or conscientious an eater, we all draw the line somewhere. For those willing to cross that line, we've compiled a list of some of Austin's offal offerings, ranging from most beginner-friendly to most ... exciting. Bon appétit.
• Liver: Pâté is the peanut butter of the offal world. Enoteca Vespaio offers a duck liver mousse half-off during happy hour; Contigo does a pork liver pâté with eggplant fritters and Texas honey; and foie gras was spotted in a duck miso soup at Counter 3. Five. VII this summer.
• Skin: Who doesn't love a crispy, salty chip? Crispy pork skins appear alongside arepas at Casa Colombia; Contigo makes a chicken skin PB&J slider; and the soft and chewy sautéed pork rind is a common filling at many local taquerías, like the egg and chicharron breakfast taco at Papalote Taco House and the chicharron salsa verde taco at Pueblo Viejo.
• Marrow: The gelatinous filling of beef, pork, and lamb bones is basically a more decadent butter for toast. Salty Sow serves a bacon and Gruyère roasted bone marrow with parsley puree; marrow bones with shallot jam can be scooped at parkside; and Barley Swine once filled pasta with the hot liquid.
• Sweetbreads: The thymus gland of a calf or lamb is essentially a gourmet chicken nugget. Licha's Cantina recently debuted tacos de mollejas; Wink almost always has sweetbreads, but the preparation is seasonal and ever-changing; and Dai Due gets them locally when they can ("It takes a while for our producer that's killing two cows a week to come up with enough to keep on our menu for three days – so it's a treat," says Griffiths).
• Roe: The flavor-packed eggs of marine animals are enjoyed around the world. Perla's makes a lobster and caviar (sturgeon roe) omelette; Russian House offers (as a single menu item) two vodka shots with black (sturgeon) and red (trout) caviar; and both Japanese and California uni (sea urchin roe) are often available at Uchi.
• Heart: The slightly gamey muscle is low in fat and versatile for cooking. Chicken heart skewers are always on the menu at Dai Due; beef heart anticuchos have popped up at the new Peruvian joint Yuyo; and deer heart tartare was on Olamaie's Valentine's Day prix fixe menu – how romantic!
For the Culinarily Curious
• Tongue: When cooked slowly, this mouthy member becomes very tender. Grilled beef tongue is served family-style at Pitchfork Pretty; Dai Due confits then grills their pork tongues; and Licha's Cantina makes sopes de lengua with a guajillo-peanut salsa.
• Face: What, you didn't know barbacoa was cow face? Even Torchy's Tacos could appear on Fear Factor.
• Stomach: Tripe, the spongy stomach lining of a cow, makes up the Latino staple of menudo and is a common addition to Vietnamese pho. Find menudo at Marcelino Pan y Vino and pho at Thanh Nhi.
• Intestines: Chinmi is a Japanese term meaning "rare taste," and regional varieties include fermented crab intestines or (detoxed) blowfish ovaries. Kemuri Tatsu-Ya devotes an entire special menu to these delicacies. Their shiokara is squid marinated in its own guts and fermented. Chitterlings (the small intestine of a pig) is a classic dish of the Deep South, boiled with onions and served with hot sauce. It's available at Roland's Soul Food & Fish daily and at Country Boyz Fixins on Saturdays.
• Blood: In many cultures, consuming animal blood is taboo, but we'll pardon this delicious sin. Both Bullfight and Dai Due make blood sausage in-house; Pho Saigon and Tan My do a traditional Vietnamese blood cake; and Contigo notoriously whips up a pigs' Bloody Mary during brunch.
Harder to Swallow
• Feet: Wu Chow, Old Thousand, and most dim sum restaurants plate up chicken feet; pigs' feet can be enjoyed at Country Boyz Fixins on Fridays; and Barlata Tapas Bar braises pigs' trotters for a terrine with leeks, apples, and a mustard sauce.
• Ears: Crispy pig ears (usually sliced into thin strips) are offered as tapas at Winebelly, have appeared on pizza at Odd Duck, and were filling for lettuce wraps at Swift's Attic. They're also popular at many Chinese barbecue joints.
• Tails: Cows' tails are more exotically called "oxtails." They appear between bread at Noble Sandwich, in quesadillas at ATX Cocina, and as a terrine at El Chipirón. Pigs' tails resemble a long chicken wing when fried. Barley Swine once supplemented them with chickpeas, pickled peppers, and tomatoes.
• Testicles: Some the most adventurous eaters I know balk at the idea of eating testicles. However, there's a reason they're on the menu year-round at Lucy's Fried Chicken. They've occasionally appeared on Salt & Time's "odd bits" board as well, and Searsucker offered them a few years ago under the elusive name "cowboy caviar."
• Brains: Tacos de sesos (cow brains) have unfortunately disappeared from taquerías due to the risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (aka mad cow disease), but a recent chicken dinner with Tumahye supper club presented a whole chicken head (one course of 12) in a fantastic spicy, fermented black bean sauce, and chef Alan Delgado instructed diners to "crack the skull with [our] teeth and suck out the brain." Its creamy texture was similar to pâté. Ten out of ten diners would eat it again.
Comment below with your favorite local offal dishes.